The first thousand words or so of The Curve of the World, an alternate history novel about what might have happened if first contact between eastern and western hemispheres had been based on trade and diplomacy rather than conquest and conversion.
THE CURVE OF THE WORLD
In the full of the Moon, a fire blazed between the horns of the mountain. The Moon rose in a night sky black and clear and deep, and paved in stars. The fire’s sparks reached to join the gleaming path.
A branch exploded in the flames, spraying a shower of embers. The embers died, their sharp smoke drifting into the soft, warm air. The adults gathered, circling the fire, carrying armsful of golden lilies or sprays of lavender. Their long tiered skirts and bare feet brushed the ground. Seal-stone bracelets and gold earrings caught the starlight, the firelight, the light of the Moon.
The moonlight wove silk around the deep cleft in the mountainside and clothed Rhenthizu in silver as he stepped from the cave.
Iakinthu took Rhenthizu’s hand and drew him into the circle, into the center, into the light. The boy gripped her fingers but followed without hesitation, his natural dignity obscuring his apprehension. He held his head high. The silver of the Moon gave way to the gold of firelight against his skin. His scalp was shaven, except for his long straight child-locks; his hair never would form proper curls. Spots of scab covered his knee, like any boy’s; a scraped knee hardly counted as a blemish, compared to the scars on his back from the bad times before he became Iakinthu’s given child.
Iakinthu brought Rhenthizu to the Eldest Daughter. The daughter’s companion snake coiled around her arm, curved toward the tempting heat of the fire, returned to the secure warmth of her body. Its tongue flicked; its scales glimmered in starlight.
Iakinthu and the Eldest Daughter smiled at each other, sharing their joy. The Eldest Daughter kissed Rhenthizu’s forehead. One of her sisters brought an ancient nippled ewer with a bird-woman’s head, painted with flowers. The Eldest Daughter accepted it reverently and raised it above the boy. Iakinthu helped her tilt it. Oil infused with lavender and gold dust gushed from its mouth, releasing a sharp resinous scent. The oil ran through Rhenthizu’s child-locks, down his cheeks, onto his shoulders, down his chest and his back, over his sex. Firelight gleamed on his skin, reflecting from the flecks of gold, anointing him.
Iakinthu guided him to face the fire. He gazed into it, hypnotized by the ceremony, the blaze, the night’s breeze. Breaking his stillness, he leaned toward the fire and flung an offering into it; the tiny clay sculpture vanished into flames and ashes before Iakinthu could make out its shape. She should leave him the secrets of his deepest wish, but Rhenthizu was her given child, and she wondered what he most desired.
He straightened, squared his shoulders, and drew his hand from hers. He was ready.
Standing behind him, Iakinthu drew a new obsidian knife from the sheath tucked into the cincture of her skirt. The black blade held an edge so sharp it gleamed transparent grey.
Carefully, delicately, Iakinthu grasped the end of Rhenthizu’s forelock and drew it taut. He arched his neck, tilting his head back so she could reach him. She shaved the forelock close, careful of his skin. The knife parted each strand of hair with barely a touch. His forelock came free. She flung it into the fire. It sizzled and disappeared, leaving only its sharp scent.
She shaved his child-locks. When she finished, the Eldest Daughter smiled again. All the adults together gave a single, quiet sigh. Iakinthu threw the knife into the fire; it stuck upright, reflecting the flames, unchanged.
Rhenthizu faced Iakinthu. Sleeping in the mountain, joining the adults, surrendering his child-locks, he had taken up the rights of a young man.
Each of the adults crossed into the circle to kiss Rhenthizu on his forehead and fill his arms with lilies. He accepted their blessings, his eyes shining.
Approaching him last, Iakinthu drew him down and kissed his forehead. The perfumed oil, warmed by his skin, touched her lips with the essence of lavender.
When did he grow taller than I? she wondered. I knew he was taller than I — did I think of it before this moment?
“You’re my family’s given child,” she said. “Before I give you back to your mother, I give you back to yourself.”
She kissed him again.
The ground trembled. The hollow of the mountain held the rumbling of the earth, concentrated it, extended it with echoes. Iakinthu imagined her feet sinking into the ground, steadying her. She dreaded another strong earthquake, the cruel disruption of the land, thunder and lightning out of nowhere, out of the ground where it never belonged. Sometimes, to this day, she lay waking in the dawn light and thought she felt the quivering of the world.
The trembling subsided with a final sharp shake. Iakinthu rubbed her arms, chilled despite the warmth of the night.
Rhenthizu stared at the cave, his eyes wide and horrified. Lilies spilled from his hands. Iakinthu touched his cheek and turned him to face the fire again.
“Our mother’s companion is angry,” whispered the Eldest Daughter, gazing toward the cleft in the mountainside. “Angry that you’ve joined us instead of him.”
The shock left Rhenthizu’s face, and he smiled.
“Go ahead,” Iakinthu said. “Go down the path, and we’ll follow. Your friends are waiting.”
He gathered the lilies in one arm, touched his fist to his forehead to salute her, then wiped the oil from his brow. She stepped aside, opening the circle for him. He stepped over it and strode away, all apprehension and anticipation. Streaks of golden oil gleamed along his back, obscuring the scars. He vanished into the darkness. Lilies scattered after him, bright against the ground.
The companions danced around the fire, faces raised to the glow of the night sky.
Iakinthu and the Eldest Daughter shook the ancient ewer over the fire. The last drops of oil popped and smoked; Iakinthu wafted the scented smoke around the Eldest Daughter, around her own face, toward their dancing companions. When the scent faded, the Daughter lit new torches.
The dance ended.
Dreamsnake (Nebula, Hugo, Locus, PNBS)
The Moon and the Sun (Nebula) With any luck, the movie (now titled The King’s Daughter), starring Kaya Scodelario, Fan BingBing, Pierce Brosnan, William Hurt, directed by Sean McNamara, will debut in summer 2017. I blogged about visiting the filming at Versailles, at the Book View Café blog.
The Starfarers Quartet: The best SF miniseries never made. To celebrate Write-a-thon, the first volume is free in July at Book View Café.